City passes planning document

By Nate Sandstrom

A crowd of more than 60 people packed the Urbana City Council chambers Monday night to demand that the city keep greenery and nature trails to provide a leafy barrier between southwest Urbana residences and any new retail development along the outside of Orchard Downs.

An amendment preserving green space along the north and east borders of Orchard Downs passed unanimously, as the Urbana City Council approved the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that guides future development decisions.

The University owns Orchard Downs, a cluster of residences with a park area on the southeast part of campus that houses graduate students with families. University officials are considering leasing the land to developers for retail use. Although Orchard Downs is currently exempt from local taxes, any business operating on the redeveloped land would be subject to Urbana taxes and zoning.

Several people who spoke at the meeting expressed concerns that retail development in Orchard Downs would harm the neighborhood’s family-centered characteristics. While the University has not announced any official plans for Orchard Downs, neighborhood residents were alarmed by comments University planner April Getchius made to The News-Gazette last week that alluded to retail development along Race Street and a consultant’s proposal for a large shopping center in Orchard Downs.

Getchius was out of her office on Tuesday and did not return messages seeking comment.

Cheers followed each speaker at Monday’s meeting as they voiced their opposition to retail development being placed anywhere but the south end of Orchard Downs, along Windsor Road where no houses are located.

Pat Johnson, 105 Meadow Drive in Urbana, said retail development would destroy Orchard Downs’ quiet setting and the park space that motivated her to move near there close to 20 years ago.

“Once that area becomes a retail area with a 99-year lease I don’t know how we would ever get the green space back … There really is no need for a new retail area in the middle of a residential area in Urbana,” she said.

The audience erupted in applause as she suggested that new retail businesses be encouraged along Philo Road where infrastructure already exists.

Helaine Silverman, who lives on Mumford Drive close to Orchard Downs, railed against a retail assessment completed by consultant Jones Lang LaSalle that proposed a shopping center in Orchard Downs. She said developers would be foolish if they think residents want large retail shops close to their homes.

“I do not see how destroying our neighborhood with massive retail as contemplated (in the report) and ambiguously made possible by the Comprehensive Plan’s wording of ‘neighborhood businesses’ – how this can be presented as beneficial to us?” Silverman said.

Officials familiar with the project at Jones Lang LaSalle did not return calls seeking comment.

Alderman Christopher Alix said better communication was needed between the University and the community.

“There seems to be this undercurrent (to the debate) that the University thinks the neighborhood is going to march on the President’s House unless we get a 160-acre field with puppies and flowers, and I think the neighborhood thinks the University wants 160 acres of a steel mill surrounded by strip clubs. And the reality is somewhere in between,” he said.

Alix said he thought one reason for the lack of communication was that University officials were still unsure of what they wanted to do.

“I think the reason that we haven’t heard much about the University’s plans is less that they’re trying to keep them secret than that they haven’t finalized anything yet,” Alix said.

The University has scheduled a public forum to discuss Orchard Downs’ redevelopment at 7 p.m. on April 19 at the Urbana Civic Center, 108 Water St.

The other area of contention with the Comprehensive Plan was the addition of roads in northeast Urbana and the area immediately outside the city. Residents in that area had collected more than 300 signatures in opposition to new road construction. They argued that new roads would harm sensitive species that reside in the area and that increased traffic would destroy the neighborhood’s rural characteristics.

The group also asked that High Cross Road be removed from consideration as an interchange location off Interstate 74. However, Laura Frerichs of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity advised that Urbana would be more likely to receive federal funding for an interchange project if more options were available, so the council retained High Cross Road as an option.

Although the Comprehensive Plan sets goals for future development, it does not change the city’s zoning patterns.

Alderwoman Esther Patt called the Comprehensive Plan a “living document” that can be altered as needed.

“There’s always a possibility that when we get some new information we can change the plan,” said Alderman James Hayes.